Elliot Rodger among the ruins

by Sam Kriss

It’s a cold, blustery day near Tintern Abbey. The wind, pouring over the wooded hills that surround this pile, washes the sharp stink of diesel exhaust against its tired stones. Vans chug along the A466, forming a slow but constant loop between Hereford and Newport. The abbey stands alone in its square of dead grass under a dead sky, hemmed in by a shabby stone wall. There’s a bus stop, and few B&Bs cluster nearby for those honeymooners whose imaginations can’t stretch further than south Wales. Aside from the speeding cars and the trembling of trees, battered into submission by modernity, there’s no sign of life. Any wreath of smoke sent up in silence from among the trees would be ripped to wisps in the wind. Nonetheless, he’s there, up in the houseless woods, in some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire the Hermit sits alone, scribbling line after line of self-aggrandising idiocy.

Before carrying out his killing spree in Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger posted a 141-page autobiographical manifesto called My Twisted World on the internet. Most of the recent controversy around the aetiology of the murders has ended up drawing on this text. Can the killings be reduced to some nebulous concept of mental illness and anomie, or are they the product of general societal misogyny and male entitlement? Either way, the answer’s inside, if you look at the text closely enough. All this only plays into the killer’s hands: he wanted his words to be studied and pondered and argued over. No text is ever complete, closed, and hermetic; the function of an autobiography isn’t to give clear answers but to keep people asking questions, to prop up the heroic mystique of its author. The only way to avoid falling into Rodger’s trap is to refuse to start by analysing his account of events. To understand the tragedy in Santa Barbara, you have to begin with Wordsworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

Wordsworth was the quintessential English poet. He wrote with a deep childlike love of this country, its landscapes, and its soothing and gentle sights. His compositions move with a rolling fluidity from limpidly gorgeous descriptions of nature to profound reflections on universal themes. Every brick in every lowly peasant hut is imbued with a sense of calm significance. Wordsworth’s poetry has a slow deliberate style, one without any of the tubthumping demagoguery of Shelley or the overblown mythopoeia of Blake. He was, in other words, utterly shit. All the great Romantics knew this. Byron had his number: in his dedication to Don Juan he has great fun tripping up the pompous old lake poets as they tramp off on their lonely excursions in the dull old English countryside. There is narrowness in such a notion/ Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes for ocean. Even Keats, the sad sensitive soul of the Romantic movement, could reserve some viciousness for Wordsworth’s grand mediocrity: All of these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet/ On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it? For Keats even the grander moments in Wordsworth’s poetry constitute an egotistical sublime – whatever bucolic landscape the poet plonks himself in front of, his reflections always end up falling back on himself. Just as well, then, that Wordsworth kept to Dover and the Lake District. Imagine the damage he’d do if his withered imagination were let loose in a genuinely spectacular landscape – somewhere like Byron’s Italy, or southern California.

Tintern Abbey reached its present state of picturesque ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries of the 1530s, in which the assets of various ecclesiastical bodies were seized by the English crown, with the profits furthering imperial adventures abroad – but it’s not as if any of this historical fabric makes its way into Wordsworth’s poem. The abbey itself is never mentioned, appearing only as a trace, the conspicuous absence of a being-there under erasure. The abbey inspires Wordsworth’s reflections, but mentioning it can only destabilise the central opposition between the signifiers Nature and Man: the entire poem is an attempt to blot out the looming presence of the ruin and the historicity it represents. The landscape around Wordsworth is a wild secluded scene, a point of lasting communion with Nature: These beauteous forms/Through a long absence, have not been to me/As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:/But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities, I have owed to them/In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. Of course, the countryside around Tintern is no less artificial than the cities Wordsworth and Coleridge were so fond of despising; the pastoral farms/ Green to the very door are the result of centuries of enclosure and class struggle. For Wordsworth rural life is not merely idiocy, as in Marx’s formulation: it is fully non-human, appearing as part of a static Nature. Only the abbey, in its state of ruin or difference to itself, testifies to the internal heterogeneity of things; for that reason it must be erased.

True to form, the scene on the banks of the Wye soon gives way to an extended bout of poetic onanism, with Wordsworth recalling a previous visit to the same spot. Five years beforehand, he bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams/Wherever nature led; now he’s more inclined towards a subdued, solitary contemplation, and both desires are enthusiastically met by a promiscuous and polymorphously perverse Nature, one that never did betray/The heart that loved her. These modes of engagement are like the attributes of Spinoza’s divine Substance; Nature is a univocity of Being, a motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/And rolls through all things – but at the same time it is directly opposed to the artificiality of the world, the heavy and weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world. Nature is meaning, eternity, and infinity. It’s a state of grace, a gift, but like all gifts its giving institutes a primordial lack. As such it can only be accessed by disavowing the impermanence of the world – in other words, by erasing the hulk of Tintern Abbey. But this is always an impossibility; the trace of the abbey plagues the poem like a rotten tooth.

William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger are describing the same phenomenon. Rodger’s screed is full of resentment against those living a better life. The bliss seen by Wordsworth in the impossible univocity of Nature is seen by Rodger in the impossible univocity of sex. However, Rodger was a virgin: he didn’t understand that the gift is impossible, and while Wordsworth tries to erase its non-existence, Rodger demands to receive it. He imagines that for those who can access sexual experiences, life must be a Paradise – when, of course, life is mostly vaguely shit for everyone, sex or no sex (and, as Adorno points out, happiness is always something you remember, not something you experience). There’s a lot that’s frightening in My Twisted World – the narcissism, the accounts of brutally failed attempts at socialisation, the fantasy of mass industrial femicide – but among its most disturbing aspects is the author’s complete lack of any of the fetishes or perversions that make actually existing sexuality sustainable. For Rodger sex is always homogeneous to itself. He doesn’t experience proximal sexual desire so much as a desire for sex, uninflected and generic. It’s only through this impossible unity that he can achieve happiness. Had he ever lost his virginity, his reaction could only have been one of enraged disappointment. Like Wordsworth, he can’t tolerate the internal difference of things – hence the continual egotistical return to the illusory unity of the self. (It’s no coincidence that Rodger subscribed to our era’s iteration of the mawkishly monist metaphysics of Wordsworth and Coleridge, in the form of The Secret, a book that proclaims that the Universe exists to facilitate our desires, and that wishing for anything hard enough will make it come true.)

In the end, it comes back to Tintern Abbey and the dissolution of the monasteries. Elliot Rodger was propelled by a murderous culture of male entitlement, one in which women aren’t in any sense human beings but mere walking dispensers of sexual gratification. It’s an institutionalised system of domination that we’re all to some degree responsible for, a fact only confirmed by the inevitable self-centred attempts to wriggle out of this responsibility: but not all men! At the same time, it’s not just male entitlement that’s responsible. In My Twisted World Rodger describes himself as a perfect gentleman, someone hailing from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes. Elsewhere he writes: How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more. Rodger’s entitlement is a feudal entitlement. Contemporary patriarchy tends to operate through the commmodification of female bodies; for Rodger such commodity-relations are inscrutable. He has an aristocratic horror of truck and barter, the processes of negotiation through which most people navigate the libidinal economy. When he decides that his only salvation lies in becoming a multi-millionaire, he decides to achieve this by winning the lottery, appealing to divine Providence instead of lowering himself to tradesmanship. His relations with women follow a similar pattern. He recounts the days leading up to his twentieth birthday: I made a bid to do everything I could to lose my virginity in those few remaining days I had […] I walked over to the centre of Isla Vista every day and sat at one of the tables outside Domino’s Pizza, hoping against hope that a girl would come up and talk to me. Why wouldn’t they? Women are subjects, not in the ontological but the sociological sense: peons expected to obey his desires without them ever being articulated, let alone acted upon. Nobody ever rejected Elliot Rodger; he never entered into any relation where acceptance or rejection was possible. What the women of Santa Barbara rejected was the social code of the fourteenth century – and for that, he decided that they had to die.

Across Europe, Protestant countries experienced some kind of a dissolution of the monasteries, but the experience of England is unique. On the Continent, the loss of monastic land was prompted by waves of popular anti-clericism; in England it was in intervention by the ruling class, widely opposed by the people. The dissolution of the monasteries marked the end of the static world of the medieval period and the ties of social obligation and feudal duty that had once characterised everyday life. As part of the process of primitive accumulation, it was the beginning of the world of property-relations that succeeded it. But these transitions are never so total as they might seem: as Marx writes, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. The sense of noble privilege that fuelled the Santa Barbara killings is not, in the end, entirely heterogeneous to contemporary capitalist society: it’s present wherever human beings are instrumentalised. Tintern Abbey is in ruins, but its ghosts remain, haunting William Wordsworth and Elliot Rodger and the families of his victims. Throughout the centuries, their grim whisper is the same: the world is singular and homogeneous, and you deserve the impossible gift.